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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Memories of Tamale

In Tamale traffic flows, but you could walk most places if you so desire.

Tamale has giant bike lanes, and veiled women wearing bright clothe from head to toe driving motorbikes with babies on their backs.

A short walk from the Catholic Guesthouse we found Swad Fast Food, owned by Indians and equipped with the largest menu in the land. Amazingly, they actually had what we ordered: our old favourite, Indian food, chana masala and all those delicious sauces, on lemon rice.

We interviewed Theresa at her office and learned all about the Christian Council’s dirty bag of tricks, filled with pictures of mutated genitalia, a fake cock, condoms, and other sundries, all used to educate congregations and student bodies about what AIDS could do to you if you don’t take the proper precautions. Then she invited us to dinner.

She treated us to local specialties of the north: TZ (which is like fufu but made with millet I think, and it has a cream of wheat flavour, but it’s firmer) in stew and delicious guinea fowl. Theresa, like Miia, is not really a meat-eater so I, the so-called meat minimizer, and George, the country’s second best teacher, ate the better part of a bird between us. With red wine that thankfully they hadn’t had time to chill.

Miia and George carried most of the conversation; he told us about when he went to Toronto to see the pope, then to Holland to study for a year, back in 02. He enjoyed his 10 days in Canada, found the Dutch too cold.

The next morning Theresa picked us up and took us to the AIDS support group, where a fist-fight broke out between two women on opposite sides of the circle, one a recently-arrived francophone Togolese woman who felt that their recently acquired food donations should be shared equally among the group, the other a long-term resident of the hospice where they were meeting under the shade of a giant tree, who felt that some of the food should be shared outside of the group because there was so much of it. After wigs were readjusted (women here wear wigs like hats so you can never expect a woman’s hairstyle to stay the same from day to day) everyone had a good laugh and asked that I don’t include the fight in my newspaper article, which I didn’t. Miia quipped that it’s a true family that can fight and laugh about it a minute or two later.

I had been expecting a meeting with formalised dialogue among members (like “hello my name is Ama and I am HIV positive and living well thank-you” kind of thing) but instead there were presentations from visitors including an NGO, a wacked out preacher who promised a cure in faith, and us. I just said a thank you for having us and that their strength and pride was inspiring, all true. Miia added that she had witnessed similar groups in El Salvador, Canada and Europe, that they were part of a global solidarity network. In the end I asked some questions to the group and wrote down what they told me were their needs, hopes, challenges, etc. The exuberant Chair of the group showed us around the compound a bit we met some of the kids, some of whom are AIDS orphans and one little boy who is HIV positive, and some of them wanted us to pose with them in pictures on our camera. Despite the enormous stigma facing them, they insist on their dignity, and say that they aren’t afraid to be in the media to show Ghanaians that while the HIV/AIDS virus is to be feared the people living with it are not.

Ghanaians of a certain age, maybe 3, are totally afraid of white people. They are just old enough to see that we are different, but not yet old enough to know how one deals with such difference. They usually cry and hide their eyes or run away and stay behind their mother’s legs. Just a little older and they are absolutely fascinated. One little girl at the trotro station saw us and started yanking vigorously on her mother’s skirt screaming “Mommy Mommy Mommy! O!boruni! O!boruni!” while her mother did her best to ignore the child.

Right after the HIV/AIDS support group meeting E and L came and picked us up and took us to the guesthouse, literally a complete house, that is E’s Tamale home. L lives in Sunyani in the Western Region, where they bought a house when E was assigned there. Now he is in Tamale for 3 years completing a large water expansion that will give running water to everyone in the area (at the moment only 3 in 10 have it, and not every day). They also have the apartment rented for another 2 years in Accra, and it was that day we asked them if we could rent it from them for the rest of our time in Ghana. They said “no, but you can stay there for free. You are our friends now, so we can’t take money from you.” Their word on that was final, but they have since asked us to pay the power bill when they found out we were using their air conditioner.

I interviewed E for a story on water issues and he drove me around to meet his boss and co-worker; he wanted to make sure it wasn’t just his name in the paper in case anyone called his comments into question. I doubt they will because he was very careful to remain apolitical. We were shocked to see the 45 million Euro budget for the project because the conditions of the Dutch loan stipulate that 40 million of that must be spent ‘offshore’ i.e. back in Holland, so that’s where all the engineers and skilled labour will originate, as well as equipment and financial instruments. What a scam. In the end Tamale gets its water but Ghana will still be paying interest for years for something that was a double-booster to the Dutch economy. For E’s sake I didn’t get too much into that in the story, but I might do a future commentary on the scam of financial conditionality in foreign loans.

Anyhoo, E had another man bring us beer, then admonished him for opening Miia’s when she wasn’t present – she had gone to the kitchen to whip up some Cuban-style plantain. Both E and L studied and lived in Cuba for some time and speak fluent Spanish.

Just like T and G they wanted to treat us to local cuisine so they took us out for TZ and guinea fowl. We hopped into the backseat of the pickup and listened to E and L talk about how violent the people in the north are as the world’s strongest baby tried to grab the steering wheel. Our story of the two women at the AIDS group confirmed their worst suspicions. “You see, they jump into fights over simple things that reasonable people could talk out,” L told us.

We ate atop the roof of a popular local restaurant while Super-Baby made threatening gestures to jump off and take flight, with L holding him by the diaper. He eventually gave up and contented himself with roaming around the large rooftop meeting and greeting strangers while E shouted orders at the lackadaisical waitress.

As we awaited our meals 6 Cuban doctors sat at the next table over. Cuba sends its doctors to more than a hundred countries in the world; there are a few hundred of them in Ghana alone. Cuba, having been founded by a doctor, has one of the best medical education systems in the world. Ghana does not, and the best doctors tend to leave for snowier pastures, hence their great need for Cuba’s help. These six were all located in the countryside of northern Ghana, but once a month they all come together in Tamale for drinks.

E was ecstatic to see them and he invited them to join our table. Beers arrived and Spanish chatter ran rampant, with Miia translating some of it to my ears while my tongue got tangled with my ‘mucho gusto’ and they smiled politely. Of course they could speak English but this was a rare opportunity for E, L, and Miia to use their third language. I asked what they missed about Cuba and they glanced around nervously looking for spies. “Nada,” said one of the women. Another, who had just called his wife and children and was aglow from the sound of their voices, said that life is hard in Cuba and hard in Ghana, so it’s all about the same. They seemed careful to say as little as possible, to avoid being too negative or positive. They did say that the rumours of Fidel’s impending death had been greatly exaggerated by the Imperialist media.

As the night wore on and the beer flowed we noticed our friend E had a bit of a case of the old bigmanitis, and we wondered if the doctors had a Cuban cure for that. He wanted the waitress to run next door and buy him cigarettes but she refused. He insisted on picking up the tab with the usual bigman generosity. We yawned a few times and hinted our way back to the guesthouse, where the power and water had both stopped flowing. We climbed in for a night of dodging and slapping mosquitoes until 5 am beckoned us toward the bus-stop to wait for the inevitably delayed.

As predicted the bus arrived two hours late, but with air conditioning, which broke down along with the rest of the bus periodically through the 12-hour journey to an hour outside Accra, where the motor finally called it quits for good. There was general confusion about what if anything would be done about the 50 passengers sitting on the highway-side in the middle of the night. Eventually someone translated the rumour running around that a replacement bus was on its way from either Accra to the south or Kumasi to the north. It could be several hours. I argued with my stomach and Miia with her brain. We crossed the highway and bought some snacks at the gas station and we returned to join the other passengers trying to hail a taxi, trotro, or any driver with an occupancy. Eventually a guy in a big new van jammed about 7 of us in there and took us to the northern part of town for about 50 cents each. From there we split a cab with a very honest and kind man who would only take a dollar from us, a very fair price.

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